From their teenage punker beginnings to being a Grammy-nominated major label darling to influencing a generation of heavy Southern bands, few acts can claim either the enduring relevance or creative scope of Corrosion of Conformity. The North Carolinian band, which passes its 30th year in 2012, and true enough to form, they do so with the beginning of a new age – or at very least, a bold new foray down a familiar path. 2010 saw C.O.C. regroup and tour with what was billed as the Animosity-era lineup, meaning the trio of guitarist Woody Weatherman, bassist/vocalist Mike Dean and drummer Reed Mullin. They released the Your Tomorrow 7” and hit the road to much acclaim from traditionalists who’d been aching for some of C.O.C.’s earlier, crossover-style material. Absent from this mix was guitarist/vocalist Pepper Keenan, who’d joined on guitar for 1991’s Blind and come to take the vocalist position as well, leading the band through their commercial peak on Columbia Records albums Deliverance (1994) and Wiseblood (1996). His ongoing tenure in the Southern metal supergroup Down seemed to be the stumbling block keeping C.O.C. from getting together to issue a follow-up to 2005’s excellent In the Arms of God (Down released their third album in 2007 and toured extensively to support it), and Dean, Weatherman and Mullin – the latter who didn’t play on the last record but was back in the fold after playing with Dean in his Righteous Fool side-project – eventually decided not to wait any longer. Their new album, Corrosion of Conformity (Candlelight Records), is the band’s first studio LP as a trio since 1985.
This in itself makes C.O.C.’s latest a landmark, but moreover, it’s the defiance of expectation that really sets Corrosion of Conformity apart. One might look at the fact that they chose to make it a self-titled as a kind of statement that this lineup is somehow definitive, maybe a subtle “fuck you” to Keenan, but I don’t think that’s the case. Rather, naming the record after the band feels appropriate for these songs because what these songs do is essentially distill 30 years of natural and genre-transcending progression into a cohesive set of 11 tracks that play out over 43 minutes. In every move they are C.O.C., and that seems to be more the basis of choosing the title rather than showing anyone up. I acknowledge that’s speculation and opinion on my part as a listener and a fan of the band, but I’d gladly offer the forward-looking development of these tracks as supporting argument. Dean, Weatherman and Mullin could easily have slopped together 35-40 minutes of crossover punk, called it Animosity 2 and ridden the coattails of their past glories to reunion-act glory, but they didn’t do that. Instead, with Corrosion of Conformity, they take the band’s past scope and form something cohesive and – most of all – new from it. Whatever else you take away from this review, take that. C.O.C. are not rehashing what they’ve done before. As much as these songs may be carved from a lineup dynamic that existed 27 years ago, the ensuing time has meant that the players are different people than they once were, and the album shows that right from the beginning of opener “Psychic Vampire.”
In a way, the first 40 seconds of Corrosion of Conformity tell the whole story, and even more so when one considers the efficiency and lack of pretense with which the album is executed front to back. It’s perhaps in that spirit that C.O.C. most capture the simplicity of their earliest days, but one can’t deny the grunt at the beginning of “Psychic Vampire” and the riff-led groove that ensues as epitomizing a side of the band, just as does the faster, more propulsive 10 seconds that follow and open into the verse groove. Without warning, Dean, Weatherman and Mullin have established much of the course of the record, which sets its dynamics through pacing changes and balances Southern heavy rock with unabashed punk-born fury. “Psychic Vampire” sets itself out among the strongest cuts on the album in doing so and is based in large part on these two opening riffs, which play out in juxtaposition as Dean takes the frontman/vocalist role for two distinct choruses that he keeps through much of the material, backed capably by Weatherman and Mullin. Where some other tracks, particularly later in the set, need time to sink in, the likes of “Psychic Vampire” and “River of Stone,” which follows, are more immediately memorable. Weatherman’s riffing, as captured by longtime C.O.C. producer John Custer’s excellent recording job, is part of that, keeping a tonal consistency with In the Arms of God while also capitalizing on the added rawness of having one six-stringer versus two.
Mullin distinguishes himself right away on “River of Stone,” which is the longest song on Corrosion of Conformity at 6:12. His double-bass drumming is consistent throughout the first part of the track, but not rushed in terms of pace. The song opens in its chorus, but is mostly head-down forward motion, playing off some of the faster crossover elements that were hinted at with “Psychic Vampire” and are brought to the fore on “Leeches” still to come. Most of the song’s extra length comes from a break at 3:20 wherein Dean’s bass, soaked in wah, leads to a solo from Weatherman that carries the song back to its verse and chorus. Again, they show tempo flexibility and establish a solid flow, and Custer makes his presence felt as a shout rises in the mix to transition back into the verse that leads to the chorus finale. Dean’s vocals surprise in their capability to carry the song, and though it’s not a shock C.O.C. would want to establish this early, he impresses throughout the album in both arrangement and occasionally deceptively melodic execution. Not, however, on “Leeches,” which is two-plus minutes of crossover rawness that goes directly to the Animosity roots. It’s the shortest song on the album, and possibly the rawest, though Weatherman rips several leads worthy of the band’s legacy, and Mullin handles the changes fluidly while the vocals trade off leads and backing shouts. “Rat City,” which arrives just before closer “Time of Trials,” works in a similar vein, but “Leeches” is more outwardly aggressive, making the interlude that comes with “El Lamento de las Cabras” feel well earned.
Its title translating from the Spanish to “The Cry of the Goat,” “El Lamento de las Cabras” might be the most reminiscent of the Pepper Keenan era as C.O.C. get here. The song is basically a Southern rock guitar break – hilarious that it’s 40 seconds longer than “Leeches” – that finds Weatherman layering acoustics and electrics to shift the mood of the record from the raw to something more emotionally complex and more deeply engaging. Four cuts in seems early for an interlude, but as the three-piece have already covered as much aesthetic ground as they have, “El Lamento de las Cabras” is ultimately well-placed, providing a moment to recover from the onslaught of “Leeches” and a sweetly-toned (all things relative) precursor to “Your Tomorrow,” which is among the most effective blends of the varying sides of C.O.C.’s sound as they present on the album. Where “Psychic Vampire” had divided the more thrashing and the more grooving riffs into separate parts, “Your Tomorrow” brings them together a cohesive and still quick-paced whole. Dean’s delivery of the chorus line, “Who stole your tomorrow?” feels like an anchor of the record’s sociopolitical themes, and though the song will obviously stand out to anyone who heard it as a single in 2010 or 2011, it remains strong in relation to the material around it and is one of Corrosion of Conformity’s best tracks, bolstering a strong middle section that continues with “The Doom.”
Pretty ballsy to call a song “The Doom” these days. Doubly so to make it the centerpiece of the record. That said, “The Doom” has a riff that’s about as quintessential as C.O.C. riffs get without being “Albatross.” The pace ratchets up after about a minute in, but the groove is maintained – one wants to send a care package of band-aids to Mullin’s snare – and shows again how much of the diversity within the sound of Corrosion of Conformity comes from the fluidity of the tempo shifts and how much the trio is able to get the most out of them stylistically. Mullin is a big part of that, and though he doesn’t have the flash of Galactic’s Stanton Moore, who played on In the Arms of God, his long-term chemistry with Dean and Weatherman makes this lineup frighteningly solid. Weatherman layers his leads over a chugging riff and the song finishes strong into the speedier “The Moneychangers,” which is more angular but still nod-worthy, particularly in its quick-turning bridge and pinch-harmonic chorus. A more subdued break leads to heavy riffing and a crisply soloed outro, but more than that, “The Moneychangers” provides a firm transition from the middle of Corrosion of Conformity into the back end of the record, keeping the substantial blend of “Your Tomorrow” in mind while also beginning to show some of the lasting effect that the album’s later cuts have on the listener. That is to say, where “Psychic Vampire” hit you over the head with its chorus and “Leeches” was blindingly intense, “The Moneychangers” doesn’t give the full scope of its quality away so quickly.
It works all the more with repeat listens, so that what might be missed the first or the first couple times through comes across that much better when the initial novelty of, “Hey, it’s a new C.O.C. record!” and the first couple tracks has worn off. Thus, Corrosion of Conformity is ultimately able to stand up both to its underground hype and the high quality standard set by the band’s past releases. “Come Not Here,” which hits after “The Moneychangers,” keeps the same unassuming ethic – a quiet start leads to a subversively memorable chorus begun with the line “Bow down or walk away,” which might as well stand in for the options the trio is offering listeners in terms of reaction to the record as a whole. It’s probably the most powerful vocal arrangement on the album as well, but also more musically atmospheric, acoustics coming back into play. It relies on its chorus, but the chorus is strong enough to carry it, and as “What We Become” revitalizes the energy level with straightforward, pretense-free riffing and lyrics taking the “company man” down a peg, it’s further demonstration of the album structure’s overall effectiveness. They brought the mood down a bit, now they’re picking it back up. “What We Become,” while also substantial and catchy in its own right, in turn serves to provide fluid transition into “Rat City,” which is over nearly as quickly as was “Leeches.”
Call and response vocals, fleet riffing and a healthy dose of lyrical ire make the two tracks almost like companion pieces, however. “Rat City” is no less rife with blue-collar disaffection, and a catchy delivery of the title line ensures a lasting effect on the listener. With vocals from Dean, Weatherman and Mullin, the song is more melodic than it at first appears, and keeps the momentum steady rolling into closer “Time of Trials.” Weatherman’s guitar is higher register for part of the verse, but the “Time of Trials” wastes no time getting to its point; the riff is introduced once, and in no time, Dean is in on vocals and the song is underway. Dean’s performance on bass for the finale is easily among his best on Corrosion of Conformity, showing personality late as he sets up Weatherman’s well-reverbed, big-sounding solo with smooth but still aggressive runs. The song and the album end with Weatherman chugging out one last riff, and as unpretentiously as it arrived, C.O.C.’s self-titled is over. Deluxe editions include two bonus tracks, “Canyon Man” and “The Same Way,” but the record proper concludes without ceremony, big rock finish or long fadeout. As much as the opening of “Psychic Vampire” set the tone for what followed, the end of “Time of Trials” sums it up: It was heavy, it rocked, and now it’s done. And while not much more needs to be said about it than that by the band, in the context of what they’ve been able to accomplish overall, it’s an understatement.
Corrosion of Conformity not only brings back one of heavy rock’s most seminal and defining bands, but it pushes that band into new ground it’s never yet known. The achievement is substantial, the performances crisp, the production clear but organic, but sure enough, these elements and the varied aesthetic of the band come together to create something wholly stronger than its parts. Dean, Weatherman and Mullin unquestionably benefitted from their time on the road prior to recording, but the core of songwriting at work is by no means something they lucked into or stumbled upon. They may have been back for a while now, but with their self-titled, C.O.C. have the document to prove that the trio lineup in 2012 is no less commanding than anything that’s come before it.Candlelight, Corrosion of Conformity, North Carolina